The Scientist of Sound and Light

Cameron Vokey, Hampshire College Theatre, Amherst, Massachusetts
October 2008

Nearly two years ago, I sat down with a fellow student and light designer to develop a performance piece where light and sound represented characters. Over a few months, we collaboratively created a short performance with two actors where an automated light interacted with live characters and sound represented the duality of another character. Coincidentally, this was the first time we used QLab.

Over the next year, I stepped away from the project as a creator and became the production manager, but I continued with my work in QLab, both in sound and video design. Last spring we were very excited to see our project, "The Wilson and Alva Show!" chosen to be in the Hampshire College Theatre 2008/2009 Mainstage Season (our Mainstage is a 40'x50' black box).

The two writers of the show, Nick Chandler and Zack Shepard, worked to create a show that was so tech heavy that in most of the earlier drafts dialogue was put aside for elaborate stage directions:

The stampede quickly approaches and slams into the space. Lights, sound, and projection all take part in creating this effect. The Hands are on either side of the audience with mirrors creating movement in the lights. The stampede is a quick burst of total chaos. The power of the stampede comes from its speed and suddenness.

When the show went into production, it became an even more collaboratively organized project with nearly forty people involved. Designers would participate in rehearsals and actors and technicians worked together to create multimedia installations that would inform the development of the piece; everyone participated in creating Wilson's world. Even I ended up becoming a creator for the project after months of looking at it as only an administrator. The video designer, Luke Taylor, needed some help with QLab and cueing and of course I helped. It was a great opportunity! The show became a story about a "performing scientist," Wilson, who already has the use of projection and lights under his belt, but when creating sound, there's a disaster and "sound" escapes. As a performer, Wilson uses lights, projection and sound to create a spectacle to entertain the periodically moving audience. The majority of the 45 minute show was dedicated to Wilson trying to recapture the device of sound.

Though sound and light continued to play characters, the projection served to reinforce the stage action. Between the use of QLab for sound and video, there were over 700 cues for the show. We had two projectors on movable pipes and three projection screens on casters so that members of the cast could move them around during the show. Our third projector was mounted from the grid.

At the beginning of the show, Wilson showed the audience how he could manipulate projection and accordingly walked in and out of screens. He snapped his fingers, then the images changed and they reflected his memories. This set up the device of the projectors mirroring Wilson's emotions.

Later, we surrounded the audience in projection as they "traveled" within the projected images around them, with forward motion on three sides using thousands of stills taken on a digital SLR and put into a sequence. This was a quite a bit more difficult than imagined. It wasn't as easy as putting it into a sequence; there needed to be some cohesion between all three screens and it had to relate to stage action. The challenge during this segment never ended as there was a storm and a stampede that interrupted their journeys.

My favorite portion of the show, and the most dynamic use of QLab and projection was at the end when Wilson battled his sound creation, Graham, and his emotional state was projected on to a cardboard city behind him. World War II cannons were going off on either side of him, we'd see fire, then pictures of cities, then stock footage from factories and occasionally we'd see the confusion of blurry unrecognizable headlights. It's what we imagined how an emotional battle would be realized if it was portrayed by video.

GEAR LIST
  • Mac Pro
    • 1 x 2.8 GHZ Quad-Core Intel Xeon 5400
    • 2 x ATI Radeon HD 2600 XT with 256 MB GDDR SDRAM
    • 1 x ATI Radeon HD 2600 XT with 512 MB GDDR SDRAM
    • 1 x Serial-ATA Hard Disk 7200 rpm, 500 GB
    • 1 x Serial-ATA Hard Disk 10000 rpm, 150 GB
    • 6GB DDDR2 800 MHZ RAM
  • Projectors
    • 1 x Toshiba TLP-X10 (2000 Lumens, 400:1 Contrast Ratio)
    • 2 x Optoma EP761 (3200 Lumens, 2200: 1 Contrast Ratio)

The projection surrounded the audience—and Wilson is having a conversation with his light.

Wilson explaining how he can control projection.

The workshop performance that started the project a couple years back.

As the battle came to its climax, Wilson learns that the perfect interaction with the elements of light, sound and projection is in dance and music. Accordingly, Wilson with all of his assistants, the hands, and the multimedia characters participate in a dance—his perfect showcase of lights and music.

Setting up our run machine was the most difficult part of the process. We set up a Mac Pro with only two gigabytes of RAM, two video cards, and a 7200rpm drive running all three videos and our control monitor at once. We quickly learned that we needed more; an additional four gigabytes of RAM, an additional (and faster) hard drive and a third video card. We set up this beast of a machine on our catwalk and a Final Cut edit machine next to it. Some of my favorite hours as a technician were spent in a hot, tiny corner of a catwalk with two other guys tweaking each cue to the millisecond. Is this fade long enough? Do we like the hover craft transitioning from the storm to going back into the city? Does it look good when they come out of the fog? A second less? Ok. How does this look now? Great.

Like with using any software with live performance, a fear during the show was that QLab would crash, but it never happened; videos didn't mysteriously stop running and we never got the famous "would you like to submit a bug report to Apple?" We were more concerned with the projector's lamps going out or that our hard drives would fail. We even kept our run desk organized (that almost never happens). That being said, it wasn't a priority to clean our dishes during this production.

This experiential performance, where the audience stepped into Wilson's world, was only made possible with our use of QLab. There was no way we could run this show using mini-discs for sound and dvds for video. It would be impossible to create such a technically tight piece of performance and multimedia unfolding into a world around an audience without QLab. Doing this any other way would have led us to theatrical insanity. All we wanted was to create a space where you could stand in the middle and the world would unfold around you. We didn't go crazy, but we did create that world.

The moment when lights and sound have converged.